Best of 2003The Gear of the Year: Your complete guide to 50+
hardware, software, and service winners--including today's
number one product.
Photograph by: Marc SimonDo you love to shop? Love poring over the tiny type in online spec sheets while juggling browser windows from five different Web stores? How about traipsing down the aisles of a computer store hearing dubious technical data from salespeople who'd rather be selling TVs? If you don't love doing these things--but still want the best tech products--you've come to the right place.
Each year at PC World we seek out the best of the best--hardware, software, Web sites, and services that rise above their competitors. In each category, we look for a product that mixes top performance, good value, a reliable manufacturer, and preferably a dash of innovation. In the following pages are our 59 top choices for the 21st World Class Awards, from a hybrid phone that puts the Web in your pocket to a slick new Web-based e-mail service.Product of the Year
T-Mobile Sidekick ($300)Photograph by: Marc Simon
Manufacturers have been attempting to cram the Internet into our shirt pockets for ages--usually with underpowered, overpriced devices. This year, however, multiple lilliputian-but-functional Net machines beckon. Our favorite? The new color version of T-Mobile's fun, innovative Sidekick. This "hiptop" is the first wireless gadget that feels capable of putting the Web in your pocket. Its swiveling design sports both a shrunken QWERTY keyboard and a sharp color screen. On-board software includes a usable browser, e-mail, AOL Instant Messenger, and more. The unexpectedly reasonable price: $300 for the device and as little as $40 per month for voice/data service.
Speaking of voice, the Sidekick has, alas, a mediocre phone. But hey, we're data people. And if you're still unready to go unwired, take heart: Next year's contenders are sure to make even this breakthrough device look a tad retro.Computing
ABS Media Center PC 8500 ($1799)
ABS's Media Center PC 8500 proves that computers are working their way into other rooms in your house. Designed for your living room, the 2.8-GHz Pentium 4 configuration we tested comes in a sleek, stereo-component-style case that helps it fit comfortably in your entertainment cabinet. The 8500 runs Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition, a tweaked version of Windows XP that includes the ability to record live TV much the way a TiVo digital video recorder does. Recording TV isn't quite that easy in Media Center, but it's definitely manageable, and even fun. Well-chosen extras like Creative's Inspire 6.1 6600 speaker set round out the package. An included RF remote simplifies watching DVDs, listening to music, recording and playing live TV, and viewing photos. Tablet PC
NEC Versa LitePad ($2399)Photograph by: Marc Simon
Lite is right. NEC's slickly designed Versa LitePad is only about half an inch thick and nudges the scales at a mere 2.2 pounds. That's a perfect carrying-around weight for a Tablet PC.Computing: More Winners
Desktop Power PCPhotograph by: Marc Simon
Dell Dimension 8300:
Reliability ratings have slipped a little, but
Dell PCs remain
outstanding values.Desktop Value PC
Dell Dimension 4550:
Solid PC, soon to be updated to the 4600. Desktop Replacement Notebook
IBM ThinkPad T40 ($3249): The speedy Pentium M-based ThinkPad T40 ran for over 6 hours in our tests. Ultraportable Notebook
Sharp Actius UM32W ($1499): The Sharp Actius UM32W is thin, light (3.1 pounds), wireless-connected, and fast.PDA
Palm Tungsten T ($399): Highlights include a beautiful 320-by-320-pixel color screen and built-in Bluetooth.The Bare Necessities
Sunbelt Software IHateSpam for Outlook ($20)
Unless you need more Nigerian fortune scams or want to hear from questionable Viagra dealers, it's time to get a spam filter. Outlook users should try Sunbelt Software's IHateSpam 3.2 (trial version available). A simple toolbar lets you add filters for any junk the program might miss, manage lists of trusted senders, and send notices to spammers' ISPs. IHateSpam nabbed 94 percent of the spam in our tests out of the box, and it improved with training. Input Device
Logitech Cordless Elite Duo ($100)
Photograph by: Marc SimonFrom networks to PDAs to keyboards and mice, the wireless look is in this season. Logitech's USB-based Cordless Elite Duo can upgrade your input system while unwiring it. Both the optical mouse and the keyboard include scroll wheels for easier document and Web page navigation. Extra keys provide programmable one-touch access to files, applications, and Web sites. RF-based control means you don't need to be in line of sight to the wireless receiver, and a rechargeable design makes the mouse much easier to use. Stand-Alone Utility
SiSoftware Sandra Professional ($35)
Got utilities? Of course you do. But a serious PC tool kit isn't complete without SiSoftware Sandra Professional ($35 download, $47 on a CD), the ultimate Swiss Army knife of diagnostic software. With 58 separate testing modules, Sandra allows you to probe virtually all the hidden recesses of your computer to discover hard-to-find-elsewhere information about your system's processor, motherboard, RAM, expansion cards, peripherals, and Windows software environment. The free, downloadable Standard version of the program leaves out some of the more elaborate tests, but it still provides mountains of useful data and more than enough benchmarks to help you sort out some thorny PC problems.The Bare Necessities: More Winners
Microsoft Windows XP Professional ($299): Stable, full-featured, and network-ready, Pro is the best of the Windows platforms. Application Suite
Microsoft Office XP Professional ($579): Until Office 2003 arrives near the end of the year, XP remains the best way to go. If you're on a very strict budget, try out OpenOffice.org. Utility Suite
Symantec Norton SystemWorks 2003 ($70): SystemWorks bundles our favorite virus scanner with plenty of valuable utilities.Search Engine
Google: When your product name becomes a verb, you're onto something good. Google's still fast, still accurate, and still indispensable.Personal Finance Software
Microsoft Money 2003 Deluxe ($60): Money wins a tight race with Quicken as both programs tweak their interfaces to integrate more Web services.Business Accounting Software
ACCPAC Simply Accounting Basic ($39): Our accounting winner's features rival those in the pricier QuickBooks.PDA Software
DataViz Documents To Go Premium 5 ($70): A must-have app for Palm-based access to your critical Office documents.Printing and Publishing
Ink Jet Printer
Canon i850 ($170)
Photograph by: Marc Simon
With exceptional speed, accuracy, and versatility, the Canon i850 Photo Printer hits the target for all home-office applications. Rapid-firing clean black text at 7.7 pages per minute and printing photos at a speedy 0.8 ppm, the i850 is one of the faster ink jets we've tested. Its 4800-by-1200-dpi maximum color resolution enables this four-color ink jet printer to deliver good detail in photos on glossy photo paper. Competitively priced paper and long-lasting ink are cost-effective over the long haul. Photographs, which you can print in borderless 4-by-6-inch format, can last for up to 25 years without degrading if you use special paper and ink and store the prints under glass. And its $170 price tag makes the i850 an outstanding value. Photo Printer
Epson Stylus Photo 2200 ($699)
The Ferrari of consumer-level photo printers, Epson's Stylus Photo 2200 surpassed its competition repeatedly in our photo printing tests. At $699, the printer is pricey, but it's well worth the money if you're a serious shutterbug. In our tests, photos came out beautifully detailed and lifelike, with brilliant, accurate colors. The 2200 sports plenty of extra features, too, such as wide-format printing (up to 13 inches wide and 44 inches long), a roll paper feeder and automatic paper cutter, and a FireWire port--and it's the only printer we've reviewed that offers a USB 2.0 high-speed port (rather than the slower USB full-speed port). Because the 2200 uses pigmented inks rather than dye-based ones, the colors in its prints are more stable and water-resistant. Finally, the 2200 goes beyond the typical photo printer's six inks by adding a second, lighter black to enhance shading and colors. You can even swap in a different black ink designed for matte paper.Printing and Publishing: More Winners
Lexmark T630n ($1100): This reasonably priced corporate laser shot to the top of our chart in June with crisp text output and fast print speeds of 22.3 ppm for text and 11 ppm for graphics.Small-Office Laser Printer
Brother HL-5040 ($299): Brother's HL-5040 is USB 2.0-capable and delivers clean text and gray-scale graphics. It's fast, too--the HL-5040 churned out text at 13.1 pages per minute.Color Laser Printer
Oki Data Oki C7300n ($2179): Okay, so it's not technically a laser printer, but this LED model (an Oki Data specialty) prints laser-quality pages at 5.5 ppm in color mode.Multifunction Printer
Lexmark X5150 ($150): The $150 Lexmark X5150 has versatility to spare, with scanning and copying abilities to augment print quality equal to that of similarly priced ink jets.Desktop Publishing Software
Adobe InDesign 2 ($699): This worthy challenger to QuarkXPress continues to gain converts on both the PC and Mac sides of publishing.Web Design Software
Macromedia Dreamweaver MX ($399): Though pricey, Dreamweaver MX contains everything you need to design and publish a professional Web site.Digital Imaging
Digital Camera ($500 and Over)
Olympus C-5050 Zoom ($799)
Photograph by: Marc Simon
Top-drawer image quality, better-than-average battery life, plenty of high-end features, and an easy-to-use interface make Olympus's C-5050 Zoom a digital camera that's ready for serious shooters. The $799, 5-megapixel C-5050 earned some of the best image-quality scores we've seen on our tests, particularly for outdoor photos. And it lets you take plenty of them--its battery lasted for over 370 shots. The camera supports a wide variety of methods for storing captured photos, including XD-Picture Card (a 32MB card comes with the camera), SmartMedia, CompactFlash, and IBM Microdrive.
Olympus took a new approach with the controls on the C-5050. Many of the buttons bring up rotating menus with large, easily understood icons. As you spin a dial on the back of the camera, the icons appear in a selection box. Details like this help make the C-5050 Zoom's higher-end options and settings more accessible. You can operate several features, such as zoom shooting mode, with your right hand alone. Though the camera's fold-out LCD panel is less adjustable than those found on competing units from Canon and Nikon, it can rotate up to 90 degrees--handy for shots that involve holding the camera above or below your head. Photo Management Software
Adobe Photoshop Album ($50)
Organizing the scads of photos taken with your digital camera can be a daunting task. That's where photo management software comes in. Photoshop Album employs a simple interface that starts by asking what you want to do, whether it's acquiring new images or cleaning up and sharing old ones. From there it's easy to categorize, share, or edit your photos. Pulling together a slide show of your favorites is simple, too.Digital Imaging: More Winners
Digital Camera (Under $500)
Canon PowerShot S400 Digital Elph ($499): Canon continues to build on the superior design of its Elph line, packing a camera with 4-megapixel resolution into a compact and well-built case.Scanner
Epson Perfection 1660 Photo ($149): The USB 2.0-equipped Perfection 1660 Photo aced our 300-dpi scanning speed tests, accurately captured color and black-and-white images, and includes such extras as a 35mm filmstrip adapter. Image Editing Software
Adobe Photoshop Elements 2 ($90): Who can argue with an image editing package that delivers most of Photoshop's power at less than one-sixth of its price? Unless you need sophisticated prepress features, Elements is the way to go. Staying Connected
Photograph by: Marc Simon
Samsung SPH-i500 ($500-$600, depending on carrier and plan)
In a year when many vendors tried to graft PDAs onto their cell phones, Samsung hit the jackpot with its pioneering SPH-i500 Palm-based CDMA phone. This sleek, silvery clamshell is the first PDA/phone we've seen that manages to keep a true cell-phone profile (previous attempts were too large) without sacrificing usability on the PDA side (helped considerably by the crispness of its inevitably smallish 65,000-plus-color screen). You have to live without a few extras such as a Secure Digital memory-card slot, but that's a small sacrifice to make if it gains you this otherwise fabulous balancing act.Router/Gateway
Linksys WRT54G ($130)
Little by little, Wi-Fi (802.11) wireless networking is taking over the world. If you're ready to invest in a Wi-Fi router, we recommend an 802.11g model. This new standard is compatible with the pervasive 802.11b spec--but if you set up an all-11g network, you'll zip along about four times faster than 11b can sustain.
Our pick, Linksys's WRT54G, packs 802.11g's speed into the company's signature blue-and-black case. The unit is easy to install and contains a solid firewall. Like all current 802.11g routers, the WRT54G used a preliminary version of the spec at press time. The final standard should be approved by the time you read this, at which point a free download will bring the model up-to-date. Web Browser
Mozilla 1.3 (free)
The browser wars may be over, but browser innovation isn't. For five years, the open-source community has hacked away on Mozilla, a free program that is now stable, speedy, standards-compliant, and full of useful features. Unlike Internet Explorer, Mozilla blocks pop-ups with a built-in tool, manages cookies and passwords site-by-site, and includes both an IRC chat client and a powerful mail reader with intelligent spam filtering. You can surf multiple sites in one tabbed browser window (as you can in Opera, another alternative Web browser we like). Staying Connected: More Winners
Qualcomm Eudora 5.2 ($40): Outlook 2003 betas look promising, but Eudora is secure, flexible, and powerful.Remote-Access Software
Expertcity GoToMyPC ($20 per month): Offers slick, browser-based remote access.Instant Messaging Software
Cerulean Studios Trillian Pro ($25): Useful plug-ins abound for the Pro version of this multiconnected instant messenger. Firewall Software
Tie: Zone Labs ZoneAlarm Pro 3.7 ($50) and Sygate Personal Firewall Pro 5
($40): Essential protection for broadband users.Privacy Software
PepiMK Spybot Search & Destroy (free): Rids your PC of sneaky software that companies use to monitor your Web use. Antivirus Software
Symantec Norton AntiVirus Pro 2003 ($50): For details, see "Pest Zappers." Web-Based E-Mail Service
OddPost ($30 per year): Subscription includes a 50MB account with a fantastic drag-and-drop interface.Web-Based Application
Blogger: Helped start the blogging phenomenon.Places to Keep Your Data
Personal Storage Device
M-Systems DiskOnKey 512MB ($250)
Photograph by: Marc Simon
The floppy disk might not be dead yet, but if you've tried to find one around the office these days, you know it's on the way out. This 512MB flash-memory device is our favorite floppy alternative. Its USB 2.0 interface makes data transfers lightning-fast, and even in lower-capacity versions it holds much more data than you can fit on a floppy. A supersize 1GB model is also available. Pick up one of these, and you may never have to hunt for an old 3.5-inch disk again. Places to Keep Your Data: More Winners
LG Electronics GCC-4480B ($75): This fast 48X combo drive reads DVDs and burns CD-RW discs at 24X. Solid speed, an attractive price, and good support policies make this drive a winner.Hard Drive
Western Digital Special Edition WD Caviar Series ($80-$350): The Special Edition of Western Digital's 7200-rpm WD Caviar series features a large 8MB buffer that helps speed data transfers. Drives are available in capacities ranging from 40GB to 250GB. Rewritable DVD Drive
Sony DRU-500A ($330): Why worry about the DVD + or - RW wars when Sony's drive can handle both? We can't think of a reason. Competing multiformat drives are on the way, but for now the DRU-500A is your best bet. Backup Software
Stomp BackUp MyPC (download $69, CD $79): Backing up your PC is usually about as much fun as doing your taxes or folding fitted sheets. Stomp's BackUp MyPC helps make this essential process bearable.CD Mastering Software, DVD Mastering
Roxio Easy CD & DVD Creator 6 ($80): The winner in both our CD and DVD mastering categories uses a three-step process to simplify creating CDs and DVDs--though it comes at the expense of some high-end options.Sound and Video
Digital Audio Player
Creative Nomad Jukebox Zen ($300)
Photograph by: Marc SimonIs that your entire CD collection in your pocket, or ... well, never mind. With enough space to hold 5000 songs, Creative's $300 Nomad Zen 20GB really can store an entire CD collection. And for hard-core music fans, that's a life-changing event.
Of course, hard disk-based MP3 players are nothing new, and competitors such as Apple's IPod made choosing a winner in this category tough. The Nomad Zen gets the nod for its attractive combination of good design and superior value. Both USB 2.0 and FireWire versions are available in a brushed aluminum case with an easy-to-read LCD screen. Though the Nomad is slightly bigger than its different-thinking competition, it is particularly adept at on-the-go music programming: You can use a simple dial and menu interface to add artists, albums, individual tracks, and playlists to the Zen's Now Playing list on the fly. The player recharges quickly, and with up to 8 hours of playing time on a full charge, it won't run out of juice on a long trip. Bottom line: The smaller, sleeker IPod may look great; but at the same price, the Nomad Zen gives you twice the storage capacity.LCD Monitor
Samsung SyncMaster 172T ($680)
Consider the $680, 17-inch Samsung 172T the yoga practitioner of LCD monitors: It's slim, elegant, and capable of performing backbends. Just over an inch thick, our flat-panel pick perches on a dual-hinged stand that lets you vary both screen height and degree of tilt. The sleek, silver LCD won't cramp your style or your desk space--and you can even fold it flat and wall-mount it, allowing the 172T to transcend the desk entirely. Combine its adaptability with its lightness (at 10.3 pounds, it's one of the lightest 17-inch monitors we've tested), and this flat-panel can become quite the traveler. Though you might not notice the ultrathin 172T if you look at it from the side, there's no such risk when viewing the display head-on. The 17-inch viewable area produces bright colors, natural flesh tones, and crisp black text with equal aplomb. The included installation guide and around-the-clock toll-free assistance will help you work out any kinks you encounter.Sound and Video: More Winners
Samsung SyncMaster 957mb ($319): The low-cost, high-res, 19-inch SyncMaster 957mb might be the last CRT you buy. Graphics Board
ATI Radeon 9700 Pro ($299): ATI's 9700 Pro stole the 3D speed title from NVidia last fall. It's still really fast.PC Speaker System
Logitech Z-680 ($400): This THX-certified 5.1-speaker set takes last year's winner to the next level. Projector
Dell 3200MP ($2199): Dell's 3200MP is adept at displaying both presentations and movies.Sound Card
M-Audio Revolution 7.1 ($120): Provides crystal-clear 7.1-channel sound.Media Player Software
Musicmatch Jukebox Plus 8 ($20): Musicmatch continues to do a capable job of organizing music files and playlists.Video Editing Software
Pinnacle Studio 8 ($100): Powerful video editing at a palatable price.Streaming Audio Service
Listen.com Rhapsody ($10 per month): Real recently bought out Listen.com. We hope Real doesn't make many changes.Loser of the Year
Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing Initiative
Every so often, Microsoft has a "eureka" moment. One happened in early 2002, when Bill Gates declared in a memo that the company needed to get serious about security and reliability. The internal message soon morphed into a very public initiative dubbed Trustworthy Computing. But while Microsoft has lately been celebrating the project's triumphs, it's tough for PC users to join the party. The last year has been downright embarrassing: Experts found holes in the company's products faster than it could correct them, and some "fixes" introduced new glitches. The low point came in January 2003, when the Slammer virus assaulted unpatched servers--including machines at a software developer in, ahem, Redmond, Washington.
All of which demonstrates why the patch approach to security is so ... patchy. Of course, Microsoft says that Trustworthy Computing is a five- to ten-year initiative. So look on the bright side: Someday we may bestow a more flattering honor on this ambitious plan.No-Class Awards: When Good Tech Goes Bad
Intuit annoyed a lot of TurboTax 2002 users, who burned up phone lines complaining about their new, buggy, and unannounced product activation feature. Competitor H&R Block took advantage of the snafu with some opportunistic marketing ("No activation required. Switch now!"), and some TurboTax users filed a class-action suit against Intuit. What, you wanted tax software to make things easier for you?
RIAA, the Recording Industry Association of America, seems to spend an inordinate amount of time suing music-file swappers these days. Perhaps if record companies invested as much time building an online music service that worked, we wouldn't have this problem.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, but Microsoft's Windows Mira (Windows-Powered Smart Displays to you) hit stores with a resounding thud, as customers figured out that paying $1000 or more for a wireless-connected monitor was anything but smart when fully functioning laptops cost less.
We've seen some overstated product pitches, but Intel's Centrino launch takes the cake. The chip maker hired Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell, who said that the launch of Centrino might be a landmark event akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Yeah, it might be. And your next-door neighbor might be dating Jennifer Garner next week.
NVidia wins our Sir, Would You Mind Turning Down Your Graphics Board Award for its GeForce FX 5800 Ultra--a graphics board with a fan loud enough to scare away some hard-core gamers who don't even flinch at the zombies in Doom anymore.
Ads that look like Windows error and system messages had us thinking we'd gone back to Windows Me for a while this year. To Internet Washer Pro, Spyware Nuker, and the other products employing this tactic: Please click here to stop this forever.